So another contentious issue opens for discussion. Grip strength is a very important component of strength and fitness training, and is quite often one of the first things people judge your ‘manliness’ on (rightly or wrongly). Grip strength can be trained, I mean you’ve only got to look at the number of contraptions that are out there designed to help people improve their grip strength. The thing is even though grip strength is an important factor; its real relevance is with regard to your ability to lift heavier in other areas of resistance training.
Case in point:
You are trying to improve your deadlift, it is the gold standard gauge for measuring absolute strength in the fitness industry so you want to get it right, not to mention STRONG! The thing is you’re repping out comfortably, legs and back feel great but then out of nowhere your grip runs away from you…consequently your back is feeling short changed! The back is a tremendously strong and big muscle so it needs more resistance than say…your hands, so what happens is your grip fails before your back does.
Enter lifting straps…these simple yet clever pieces of cloth are inserted onto your wrist similar to putting on a wrist band, but instead they are threaded through a loop allowing for a universal fit, and more importantly once thread through the loop there is an excess of about 12 inches which is then tightened around the bar. Wrapping them around the bar acts as an anchor, which should your grip fail you before your back does, enables you to keep on lifting from the wrist.
So straps certainly have a place in any serious gym goer’s kit bag, but should they be used indiscriminately and for every session, or could they actually be detracting from the acquisition of absolute strength i.e. grip, forearm and of course leg and back strength? In my opinion they probably are, so the way around this is to think about your training stimuli, so be sure to allow 48-72 hours between directly hitting a muscle group, this is known as a training split.
You may want to hit back twice a week, but don’t relish the thought of hitting deadlifts that often, instead then try to allocate one day early in the week to deadlifts and then another to upper back/lats etc later on in the week. DO NOT use straps for upper back i.e. lat pull downs, seated rows or the likes of because this is a key opportunity to improve your grip strength ready for the heavy compound move that is your deadlift! This way you can use straps for deadlifts with a clear conscience knowing that should you need them if your grip goes before your back gets the workout it needs, then at least you won’t have the hand shake of a 7 year old as a consequence!
Therefore do I feel that straps have a place, YES, do I think they should be used all the time, NO, the reason being is that this could be detrimental to total progression. A strong grip is important for many functional movements both in life, and the gym, so failing to activate the 35 (ish) muscles that comprise the hand could be hindering your overall gains (American Society for Surgery of the Hand, 2009).
Cramp and its role in grip/forearm failure
Sometimes muscles just give out, the ATP needed for energy and the build up of lactate and hydrogen ions gets too much for them to handle, this goes for endurance events such as running, cycling or climbing, and power/endurance activities such as sprinting and football respectively. To help counteract this when performing physical activity such as deadlifts, try the following acid buffering supplements:
- Beta-Alanine: This amino acid augments the release of carnosine within the human muscle, and carnosine is known to buffer hydrogen ions within the muscle (intramuscularly) which can help to keep blood pH at a relative constant, thus reducing the prevalence of cramp!
- Isotonic and Electrolyte Supplements: One of the main causes of muscle cramping is poorly regulated electrolyte, mainly sodium, potassium, magnesium and phosphate meaning the replenishment of these is of paramount importance when perspiration/sweating occurs during exercise. A great example is HIGH 5 Isotonic or Science in Sport GO Electrolyte.
- Sodium Bicarbonate: AKA Baking soda. This little gem has been seen to stave off muscle cramps via a similar mechanism to Beta-alanine and carnosine through the buffering of hydrogen ions and thus muscle acidity. Tipton and Luc van Loon (2013) explain how the chronic (long term) consumption of Sodium Bicarbonate can help to maintain a neutral pH during exercise, helping to keep cramp at bay.
American Society for Surgery of the Hand, (2009). Essentials of Hand Surgery. Retrieved 15th August, 2013, from http://www.assh.org/Public/HandAnatomy/Pages/default.aspx
Stellingwerff, T, (2012). Optimising human in vivo dosing and delivery of beta-alanine supplements for muscle carnosine synthesis. Amino Acids.
Tipton, K, D & Luc van Loon, (2013). Nutritional Coaching Strategy to Modulate Training Efficiency. Sodium Bicarbonate. Karger